As the year is winding down, one question on the minds of many MSHA inspectors, managersÂ and staff has to be: Will Stickler be here in 2008?Â The MSHA chief, Richard Stickler,Â received his job fromÂ President G.W. Bush on aÂ “recess appointment,” whichÂ expires at the end of the current U.S. Senate session.Â If the Senate adjourns (as itÂ usually does) forÂ the Christmas and New Year holidays, Mr. Stickler’s appointment would officially end.Â This would leave MSHAÂ without aÂ politically-appointedÂ Assistant Secretary.Â Would that be a good thing for miners’ health and safety?
I can’t help but recall that forÂ nearly two years—November 2004 through October 2006—theÂ individual in-charge at MSHA was an “acting”Â assistant secretary.Â His name was David Dye and the most memorable thing people remember aboutÂ himÂ is when he walked out of aÂ Senate hearing on theÂ Sago disaster.Â As theÂ “acting” chief, Mr. DyeÂ behavedÂ like aÂ caretaker.Â He seemed toÂ expect the organization to just plug along, as if it was making widgits.Â But MSHA, like its sister agencyÂ OSHA, isÂ not aboutÂ making widgits.Â Its duties are not just rote tasks, but responsibilities that have real consequences for working people.
MSHA’sÂ chiefÂ has to be a keenÂ observers of economic trends,Â technological and labor force changes, and politcal dynamics.Â If an “acting” assistant secretaryÂ chooses the role ofÂ mere “caretaker” (or is assigned that role by the Secretary ofÂ Labor) then the market, labor and politicalÂ forces willÂ eventually overtakeÂ the agency.Â Recall too thatÂ the agency itself isÂ in constant flux.Â Â MSHAÂ is in a period of dramatic transition withÂ hundreds of employees reachingÂ retirement age andÂ hundreds of others nowÂ transferringÂ directly fromÂ mining industryÂ jobs into MSHA’s inspector training program.Â The dynamics within the two—theÂ mining industry and MSHA—-are constantly converging, making an extremely challenging environment for the head of MSHA.Nobody recognizes this phenomenon better than MSHA’s own employees.Â Understandably,Â it’s why the “will he stay or will he go” question is on their minds.Â
Mr. Stickler’s appointment period is coming to an end, but MSHA staff don’t have a clue who will be in charge of the agency in the new year.Â That’s anÂ unsettling feeling for nearly anyone when anÂ organization is in flux, but imagineÂ it for an MSHA employee?Â For the last two years, MSHA staffÂ have investigated the deaths of 135 men,Â identified hundreds ofÂ inadequate mine seals, read ofÂ manyÂ new cases of black lung disease,Â while learningÂ that millions of dollars of penalties have not been collected and hundreds of mines have not been inspected.Â Because mostÂ individuals whoÂ work atÂ MSHAÂ genuinelyÂ strive toÂ contribute to the agency’s mission, the last few years have been particularly demoralizing.Â I’ve heard from some of them who say, “please just give us someÂ stability and leadershipÂ here, so we can get back on track—inspecting mines and protecting miners.”
So, who should take the reins at MSHA when Mr. Stickler’s recess appointment expires?Â
At present, MSHA has twoÂ deputyÂ assistant secretaries,Â Robert Friend (a career civil servant who has talked eagerlyÂ for the last several years about retiring) and John P. Pallasch (a political appointee who was previously a special assistant inÂ DOL’s office of administration and management.)Â If either were appointed to serve as “acting” assistant secretary, I suspect that both, for different reasons, would follow aÂ “caretaker” role.Â Â Would that serve miners well over the remaining 12 months of the GW Bush Administration?Â I don’t think so.Â Â If we’ve learned anything over the last few years with respect to miners’ health and safety,Â it is that the U.S. is far behind where it should be with respect to protecting workersÂ from injuries, illnesses and deaths on-the-job.Â Â I say “no thanks” to aÂ caretaker at MSHA for the next year.
No doubt, there’s been a shadow over Mr. Stickler’s tenure since his nomination in August 2005 by President Bush, his confirmation hearing in January 2006, and his recess appointment in October 2006.Â After this summer’s Crandall Canyon disaster, in which nine men lost their lives, critics renewed their calls for Stickler’s ouster.Â Â Yet, whenÂ MSHA’s mistakes and missteps have been exposed, it has been Mr. SticklerÂ we can point the finger at and ask for answers.Â Â As the politically-appointed head of MSHA, he’s the one in the history booksÂ who is held accountable.Â I’d much rather have someone in charge of MSHA that believes he is accountable to miners and their families, than an “acting” headÂ who has no qualms about walking out on U.S. Senators.Â
To his credit, Mr. Stickler hasÂ made a lot of commitmentsÂ over the last few months to straighten things out at the agency.Â He’s instituted a program to put “bad-actor” mine operators on notice (i.e.,pattern of violations), he established anÂ office of accountabilityÂ andÂ theÂ 100 percent plan to ensure allÂ inspections are completed.Â Perhaps he’s also learned some harsh lessonsÂ about his agency’s culture and the performance of his top staff.Â The learning curve is steeper than most people realize.Â
With only one year left in the G.W. Bush Administration, it would be wise to keep Mr. SticklerÂ on board at MSHA.Â WeÂ should expect that he’s learned from his mistakes andÂ demand that heÂ make good on his promises.Â Â
==Note: The whole time I was writing this post, theÂ Clash’s lyricsÂ “Should I stay or should I go?” andÂ head-banging tuneÂ kept popping in my head.
Celeste Monforton, MPH is a senior research associate and lecturerÂ in the Dept of Environmental and Occupational Health atÂ The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.Â She was aÂ career federal employee at OSHA (1991-1995) and MSHA (1996-2001).Â